National and international policy and frameworks

Marine management in Australia is guided by:

  • policy implemented at several levels, from local, state and territory to national, under Commonwealth and state and territory legislation directed primarily at sector-specific regulation (e.g. commercial fishing, offshore oil and gas industries), which may reflect commitments made under international conventions (e.g. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea)
  • monitoring and data that provide evidence of ocean state and changes (e.g. fisheries monitoring systems, the national Integrated Marine Observing System; see Resources)
  • research that directly influences management (e.g. fisheries stock assessments; see Commercial fishing)
  • sector-specific plans or guidelines (which may or may not be mandatory).

Indigenous contributions to management are not codified in any of these, yet are increasingly acknowledged as essential for integrated ocean management, both for sea Country and more broadly (see Indigenous inclusivity).

Attaining effective management that ensures sustainability will require monitoring, evaluation, reporting and management frameworks that are designed to incorporate and adapt to new information and changing circumstances. Achieving this within the Australian context will require harmonisation and standardisation of monitoring across jurisdictions and sectors (Addison et al. 2018, Evans et al. 2018, Hedge et al. 2021) (see case study: Baselines, monitoring and integrated ecosystem assessments). Processes that provide for widespread engagement of stakeholders will also be essential.

Assessment Effective and sustainable management of the marine environment and resources
2021
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is effective, meaning that management measures maintain or improve the state of the environment, but pressures remain as significant factors that degrade environment values. The situation is improving.
Adequate confidence
Indigenous assessment
2021 Assessment graphic for an assessment conducted by Indigenous community members, showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is improving.

Management of the marine environment and resources was generally found to be partially effective and improving. It is important to note that the climate assessment does not include reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, but the level of reductions will underpin the likely effectiveness of most other environmental management in the long term. Despite improvements in management around marine plastics, outcomes are deteriorating for this pressure due to continued increases of plastics into the marine environment outpacing management. Similarly, in some areas (such as the Great Barrier Reef), despite improvement, management of terrestrial run-off is not considered to be adequate to meet water quality targets and avoid continued environmental degradation. Traditional Owners found that management was mostly effective, although management of commercial and recreational fishing was ineffective. Note that the spatial scale of Indigenous and western science assessments may be different. Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets 12.2, 14.4, 14.5, 14.6

Assessment Climate and climate change
2021
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is improving.
Adequate confidence
2016
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was ineffective, meaning that management measures failed to stop substantial declines in the state of the environment. The situation was deteriorating.
2011
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was ineffective, meaning that management measures failed to stop substantial declines in the state of the environment. The trend was unclear.

Management effectiveness is increasing from a partially effective base that has been achieved over the past decade (Hobday & Spillman 2021).

Assessment Commercial fishing
2021
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is effective, meaning that management measures maintain or improve the state of the environment, but pressures remain as significant factors that degrade environment values. The situation is improving.
Adequate confidence
2016
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was effective, meaning that management measures maintained or improved the state of the environment, but pressures remained as significant factors that degraded environment values. The situation was stable.
2011
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was effective, meaning that management measures maintained or improved the state of the environment, but pressures remained as significant factors that degraded environment values. The situation was stable.

Improved coordination of research and development, and national best-practice guidelines have led to more stocks being benchmarked against sustainability-based reference points, with an increasing trend towards incorporating triple-bottom-line reporting. The Status of Australian fish stocks reports compile data and report on the status of key wild-caught fish stocks (Little & Hill 2021).

Assessment Indigenous commercial fishing
2021
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is improving.
Limited confidence

Indigenous people are interested in entering commercial fisheries, but there is a lack of readiness, capacity and confidence to engage. Indigenous co-management approaches are lacking in Australia, with traditional knowledge constrained by top-down institutional governance. Indigenous participation across regulatory bodies is lacking across most jurisdictions (Fischer & Hunter 2021b).

Assessment Recreational fishing
2021
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is improving.
Adequate confidence
2016
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was partially effective, meaning that management measures had limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation was improving.

Regional cooperation and coordination across jurisdictions are growing, but there is still limited alignment of key management policies, data collection, strategies and planning across jurisdictions. Recent years have seen improved accounting for recreational catch in stock assessments (Lynch et al. 2021a).

Assessment Mineral, oil and gas extraction and production
2021
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is effective, meaning that management measures maintain or improve the state of the environment, but pressures remain as significant factors that degrade environment values. The situation is stable.
Somewhat adequate confidence
2016
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was effective, meaning that management measures maintained or improved the state of the environment, but pressures remained as significant factors that degraded environment values. The situation was stable.
2011
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was partially effective, meaning that management measures had limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation was stable.

Mineral, oil and gas exploration and production are subject to regulatory regimes across Commonwealth and state/territory waters governed under legislative frameworks. Regulation requires that environmental impacts and risks have been considered, and reduced to acceptable and as low as reasonably practicable levels via environmental plans approved by the regulator. High compliance by the oil and gas industry is reported by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority. No mining currently occurs in Commonwealth waters. Mining, oil and gas activity is currently low in state and territory waters (Evans et al. 2021c).

Assessment Marine plastics and debris
2021
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is improving.
Somewhat adequate confidence
2016
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was ineffective, meaning that management measures failed to stop substantial declines in the state of the environment. The situation was deteriorating.
2011
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was ineffective, meaning that management measures failed to stop substantial declines in the state of the environment. The situation was deteriorating.

Considerable progress has been made in development and implementation of waste management programs (particularly for land-originated waste) over the past 5 years, but efforts to date have not been sufficient to reverse the increasing pressure resulting from plastics and marine debris in the Australian coastal and marine environments (Hardesty 2021).

Assessment Other marine pollution
2021
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is improving.
Limited confidence

The most significant concerns are for the health of coral reefs and the impact of spills on the environment (Gagnon et al. 2021).

Assessment Marine vessel activity
2021
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is effective, meaning that management measures maintain or improve the state of the environment, but pressures remain as significant factors that degrade environment values. The situation is improving.
Adequate confidence
2016
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was effective, meaning that management measures maintained or improved the state of the environment, but pressures remained as significant factors that degraded environment values. The situation was improving.

There is a good understanding of most management issues and clear responsibility for governance. Management responses continue to improve, and most threats are well identified, although not all are well understood (Smith & Peel 2021).

Assessment Offshore renewable energy generation
2021
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is ineffective, meaning that management measures are failing to stop substantial declines in the state of the environment. The situation is improving.
Limited confidence

No national regulatory framework for offshore clean energy infrastructure currently exists. A consistent offshore renewable energy regulatory framework that spans jurisdictions is required to effectively manage potential growth of this sector in Australia (Hemer 2021a).

Assessment Anthropogenic marine noise
2021
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is improving.
Adequate confidence
2016
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was effective, meaning that management measures maintained or improved the state of the environment, but pressures remained as significant factors that degraded environment values. The situation was improving.

Regulatory oversight for a limited range of activities aims to ensure effective management of underwater noise. Management outcomes for other activities are less clear. Acute impacts are largely managed through approval processes under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, regulatory frameworks and environmental planning, reducing risks to sensitive receptors. Assessment and inspection of only a limited number of noise-producing activities are used to inform required areas of improvement in these sectors (Evans et al. 2021d).


National policy

At a national level, there is no overarching policy relating to the ocean (the 1998 Oceans Policy was never implemented effectively) that might integrate management of ocean activities. Management varies across offshore and state and territory jurisdictions, with most management sector-specific. For example, fisheries, oil and gas, mining and environmental protection are all managed under separate legislation and policy frameworks specific to each jurisdiction. Sector-specific policies provide some guidance for broader species management, including the Commonwealth Policy on Fisheries Bycatch and the Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy.

Although coastal policies that include consideration of multiple sectors have been created for several states (e.g. New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria), similar comprehensive policies for areas further offshore are generally lacking. This means that regulation of activities from one sector is done separately and without recognition of others. For example, although management of activities within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is coordinated across local, state and offshore waters, with outcomes integrated across the marine park, many management frameworks are still implemented at the sector level and rely on policy implemented at the national and/or state jurisdictional levels (see case study: Ocean accounting in Geographe Marine Park, in the Cumulative impacts management section in the Coasts chapter).

Marine spatial planning approaches are proposed in the scientific literature, but have so far had limited uptake in planning of current and future use of the ocean. Victoria’s 2020 Marine and Coastal Policy and the marine bioregional planning process used in the development of marine bioregional plans under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) provide examples of uptake of marine spatial planning approaches (see DAWE 2021e). The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority provides the most holistic example of planning of ocean activities in Australia, with more than 344,000 square kilometres zoned (one-third of which is zoned as no-take, with fishing excluded).

Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999

The EPBC Act is Australia’s primary environmental legislation. The EPBC Act focuses on the protection of matters of national environmental significance, with the states and territories having responsibility for matters of state and local significance. In addition, all states and territories have individual legislation and policies that guide the protection of biodiversity and the environment. Matters of national environmental significance of relevance to the marine environment include:

  • world heritage properties
  • national heritage places
  • wetlands of international importance (often called Ramsar wetlands after the international treaty under which such wetlands are listed; several Ramsar sites fall within Australian marine parks)
  • nationally threatened species and ecological communities
  • migratory species
  • Commonwealth marine areas
  • the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (the first 5-yearly review of the Reef 2050 Plan is currently underway).

Commonwealth reserves, including Australian marine parks, are proclaimed under the EPBC Act. The EPBC Act also guides the management of species recognised as needing some level of protection and identification of measures that should facilitate the recovery of populations. National recognition of migratory species under the EPBC Act does not always translate to recognition under state and local coastal development management, leading to conflicts that are often only resolved if such development is identified as affecting matters of national environmental significance under the EPBC Act.

The most recent review of the EPBC Act (released in 2020) reiterated a number of key points put forward in the first review (released in 2009), including:

  • the Act needed to be modified to be outcomes rather than process focused
  • effective national arrangements are required to address a lack of integration between jurisdictions
  • fundamental supporting mechanisms such as effective planning, data and information, compliance and enforcement, and monitoring and evaluation systems need to be put in place.

In identifying a set of steps that could be undertaken to achieve reform, both reviews identified that continued decline in the state of Australia’s environment was inevitable without a sustained commitment from all stakeholders to reform the Act.

Marine biodiversity protection

Various management methods are in place to protect against or mitigate pressures to Australia’s marine biodiversity (see Pressures) as summarised below (Hobday et al. 2021b). However, the effectiveness of these methods is largely unknown, outside of target species for fisheries, as they are not systematically evaluated. In some cases, recovering species numbers (e.g. humpback whale – Megaptera novaeangliae, Australian fur seal – Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus) or elimination of invasive species on islands (e.g. Lord Howe Island, Macquarie Island) suggest that effective management has occurred. There is no national environmental standard for environmental monitoring and evaluation of outcomes; establishing such a national standard, to ensure that all parties understand and implement their obligations to monitor, evaluate, report or review their activities, was among the major recommendations of the EPBC Act review (recommendation 33; Samuel 2020).

Species and ecological communities

The EPBC Act protects Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered species and ecological communities. Less than 5% of listed threatened entities are marine, reflecting limited knowledge and challenges in assessing wide-ranging species, as well as differences in species management for marine environments compared with terrestrial and freshwater environments.

A total of 87 species and 4 ecological communities with marine and coastal distributions are listed as threatened in 2021; this is 2 species and 1 community more than in 2016 (Table 7).

Since 2016, humpback whales are the only marine species that have been removed from the EPBC Act list. Additions since 2016 include scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini) as Conservation Dependent in 2017 and cauliflower soft coral (Dendronephthya australis) as Endangered in 2020. Other changes to the listing of marine species since 2016 include uplisting (an increase in threat level) of Christmas Island frigatebird (Fregata andrewsi), shy albatross (Thalassarche cauta), subantarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus tropicalis) and Australian sea lion (Neophoca cinerea) from Vulnerable to Endangered.

One of the 8 Conservation Dependent species, southern bluefin tuna (Thunnus maccoyii), has recovered to a level above a reference point set by the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna as part of the rebuilding plan for the species, as a result of harvest limits and a rebuilding strategy.

No marine species is listed under the EPBC Act as Extinct. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed smooth handfish (Sympterichthys unipennis), which occurred in south-eastern Tasmanian waters, as Extinct in 2018 (Last et al. 2020); it is listed under the EPBC Act as Critically Endangered.

Table 7 Number of threatened marine species listed under the EPBC Act compared with the 2016 state of the environment report

Species group

Extinct

Critically Endangered

Endangered

Vulnerable

Conservation Dependent

2016

2021

2016

2021

2016

2021

2016

2021

2016

2021

Whales, dolphins, porpoises

0

0

0

0

2

2

3

2

0

0

Seals, fur seals, sea lions

0

0

0

0

0

2

3

1

0

0

Marine turtles

0

0

0

0

3

3

3

3

0

0

Sea snakes

0

0

2

2

0

0

0

0

0

0

Seabirds

0

0

2

2

10

12

24

22

0

0

Sharks, rays, chimaeras

0

0

2

2

2

2

6

6

3

4

Fishes

0

0

2

2

0

0

2

2

4

4

Seastars

0

0

0

1a

0

0

1

1

0

0

Corals

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

0

Seaweeds

1

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

Giant kelp forest community

0

0

0

0

1

1

0

0

0

0

EPBC Act = Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999

  1. The Derwent River seastar was not included in the marine environment chapter in 2016 because it was considered coastal.

Sources: Species Profile and Threats Database (2021), Species Profile Threats Database (2021)

When species are listed, conservation advice is developed that provides guidance on immediate recovery and threat abatement activities that can be undertaken. Recovery plans may also be developed for some species and ecological communities, although the plans do not provide a mechanism for subsequent implementation. At the end of the period of the plan, progress against the plan’s objectives is reviewed. Further recovery plans may be put in place following the review.

Recovery or management plans have been developed for 45 species. The conservation management plan for blue whale (Australian Government Department of the Environment 2015) was updated in 2015 and is in place until 2025, and the conservation management plan for southern right whale (SEWPAC 2012) is in place until 2021. The recovery plan for marine turtles was updated in 2017 (DEE 2017b) and is in place until 2027. The recovery plan for 3 handfish species – spotted handfish (Brachionichthys hirsutus), red handfish (Thymichthys politus) and Ziebell’s handfish (Brachiopsilus ziebelli) (Australian Government Department of the Environment & Tasmanian Government 2015) – was updated in 2015 and is in place until 2025. Conservation advice for remaining listed species has not been updated since the 2016 state of the environment report or is yet to be prepared, and no further key threatening processes to the marine environment have been identified.

In response to the findings of the 2019 independent review of the EPBC Act, the 2013 Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications report Effectiveness of threatened species and ecological communities’ protection in Australia (Environment and Communications References Committee 2013), and the 2015 National Review of Environmental Regulation, the Australian and state and territory governments agreed to establish a common assessment method for determining the conservation status of Australian threatened species based on IUCN criteria. This is to address differences in the criteria used in assessing and listing species that occur across jurisdictions.

Fisheries

The Australian Fisheries Management Authority manages Commonwealth fisheries under the Fisheries Management Act 1991, which requires fishing operations to take all reasonable steps to avoid mortality of, or injury to, EPBC Act–protected species. All interactions with these species, whether authorised or not, must be reported.

Key commercial and bycatch species (whether retained or discarded) are managed under the Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy. The Commonwealth Bycatch Policy (2018) manages the direct and indirect impacts of fishing on marine systems through mechanisms that reduce bycatch, improve mitigation measures for protected species and generally minimise the environmental impacts of fishing.

The effectiveness of state fishery management for marine biodiversity varies. It generally includes reporting of interactions with threatened and other protected species, bycatch reduction, and assessment of fish stocks using national standards (FRDC 2021b).

Marine protected areas

Marine protected areas aim to protect and conserve biodiversity and other natural, cultural and heritage values, while allowing ecologically sustainable use. They are managed by the state, territory and Australian governments. The Australian Government–managed system covers approximately 3.18 million square kilometres, about one-third of Australia’s ocean territory.

Systems of marine reserves have also been implemented across all states and the Northern Territory, some of which contribute to the National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas. New marine reserves declared since January 2016 and reported in the 2020 Collaborative Australian Protected Areas Database (2021) include marine reserves and parks in Queensland (386 hectares) and Western Australia (1,820,035 hectares).

The management of Australian marine parks is described in the management plans for each of the networks (South-east, South-west, North-west, North and Temperate East) and the Coral Sea Marine Park. The implementation of the Monitoring, Evaluation, Reporting and Improvement framework for Australian marine parks is commencing, which will allow the Australian Government to assess the effectiveness of management and biodiversity outcomes (Hayes et al. 2021).

It is not currently possible to assess the overall effectiveness of management of Australia’s national marine conservation estate, but recent research indicates that, on average, Australia’s marine reserves provide significant benefits to fished species (e.g. Bosch et al. 2021, Goetze et al. 2021). However, concerns have been raised that the efficacy of Australia’s reserve system may have been degraded by a trend over time of downgrading protection levels (Cockerell et al. 2020), and that Australia’s marine reserve system is not currently functioning as a connected network because of breaks in the connectivity of reef habitat (Roberts et al. 2020). In addition, only around 25% of protected areas provide the highest level of protection against extractive uses. This level is often critiqued – for example, Cockerell et al. (2020) and Turnbull et al. (2021) question the system’s potential to reduce threats to biodiversity (see the Legislative protection section in the Coasts chapter).

Other management arrangements

Threat abatement plans cover threats such as invasive species, marine pollution, fishing with longlines (seabird-focused plan) and fishing with trawls (turtle-focused plan). Specified agencies have statutory roles in managing recreation and tourism, mining and extractive activities, diffuse and point-source pollution, shipping, and biosecurity threats, all of which have biodiversity aspects.

Indigenous inclusivity

Governments and institutions are increasingly aiming to raise the level of Indigenous engagement and inclusivity in their activities through shifting engagement to involvement, shifting management to co-management and shifting collaboration dynamics to Indigenous leadership providing overarching direction. In addition to Indigenous involvement in activities, there is also a need to incorporate cultural bottom lines into organisational structures, and embrace respect for culture and rights within codes of conduct. Progress has been made with co-management (see the Co-management with Traditional Custodians section in the Coasts chapter). However, more work is required to ensure that best-practice methods are known and used across the nation. Reviews of Indigenous engagement in the National Environmental Science Program identified that progress is being made with Indigenous engagement and inclusivity, but that there is still a long way to go (Wensing & Callinan 2020). Indigenous people’s connections and obligations to Country are often ignored, and Indigenous engagement is often retrofitted into projects, initiatives and programs.

Achieving best practice needs to be Indigenous derived rather than focus on western frameworks that fail with a one-size-fits-all approach. Co-management frameworks and accountability built with communities, as well as organisational commitment to key performance measures and implementation of a workable model are also needed. Transformative change needs to be ignited through leadership, accountability and equity (Figure 24).

Figure 24 The components to help IGNITE change and lock in accountability and performance measures for consistency across Australia

One of the key enablers for Indigenous inclusivity is readiness to partner based around the organisation and Indigenous agencies having the right approach and mechanisms to partner effectively (Figure 25). Organisations need to invest in mechanisms to overcome cultural and institutional barriers to collaborations. For example, the Australian Institute of Marine Science has built tiers (silver, gold and platinum) to guide staff in engagement (Evans-Illidge et al. 2020). Internally, organisations need to develop approaches to assist their staff with cross-cultural initiatives, in addition to working externally with Traditional Owners. A national study on Indigenous engagement in marine science indicates the challenge for both marine research institutions and Indigenous organisations to work together to improve clarity about engagement expectations (Hedge et al. 2020).

In addition to building readiness within an organisation, it is equally important to build the readiness of Indigenous agency to influence. Establishing a national Indigenous environmental peak body would provide national leadership to drive improvements across the innovation system by targeting the reforms and strengthening the position of influence over national agendas. National leadership leads the way towards a more coordinated, cohesive and collaborative approach across the system of decision-making. A peak Indigenous body working alongside governments and agencies would also help to drive the next wave of national reforms in Indigenous management and governance, so that national growth in Indigenous-led management and collaborations can be explicitly championed and directed.

Figure 25 Readiness components for catalysing advancement steps

Resources are also important. In some allocation models, a significant proportion of the funds within a program is quarantined for Indigenous-led initiatives and projects. In the Great Barrier Reef, 10% of Reef Trust partnership funds ($51.8 million) was provided to Traditional Owner Reef Protection, which is part of a larger $443.3 million investment to help protect and restore the Reef. Wensing & Callinan (2020) recommend that a minimum of 10–15% of National Environmental Science Program 2 funds should be quarantined for Indigenous-led research and initiatives.

It is essential to have sufficient investment for Traditional Owners to champion and drive best practices for Indigenous inclusivity in engagement and governance. Gaps will persist in Australia if there is no willingness to continually invest to allow Traditional Owners to provide overarching direction by voicing their evolving thoughts about what is working well and what is not. The Traditional Owner yarning circle tells a story of building the foundations for influencing and accelerating change (Figure 26). Australia can increase the pace of change by understanding and investing in practical measures of readiness to influence organisational approaches to the delivery of on-ground programs in communities.

Investing in the growth of Indigenous and organisational capabilities will strengthen readiness for collaboration by increasing the confidence and capability for cross-cultural relationship building. Uneven growth in Indigenous and organisational capabilities due to unintentional skewing of resourcing will impede collaboration growth. Also, investment to future-proof collaboration and capability is required through appropriate mentoring of youth to enter the science and entrepreneurial sectors.

Finally, there is a need for honest dialogues about the expectations for collaborations by clearly setting out the level of co-design across project timelines. The key catalyst for change will be ignited when there is consensus about the agreed vision for objectives and performance measures:

Once you have that acknowledgement and recognition, listening to First Nations and their principles, it flows down to resourcing and governance and making strong frameworks for leadership and collaboration. (Participant, Traditional Owner yarning circle)

Figure 26 Story pieces of the Traditional Owner yarning circles based around experiences, views, lessons learned and directions with sea Country management

International policy

Australia is a party to numerous international conventions and frameworks, including:

  • United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)
  • United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)
  • United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
  • United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
  • United Nations Straddling Fish Stocks Agreement
  • Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing
  • International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling
  • Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter
  • World Heritage Convention
  • Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat
  • Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
  • Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals
  • Convention on Biological Diversity.

Australia is also participating in negotiations for a new treaty under UNCLOS on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Being party to these conventions and agreements affects the high-level principles of Australian national policies and management approaches (see case study: Management of shared marine biodiversity values). For example, by ratifying UNCLOS and associated agreements, Australia now applies the precautionary principle and ecosystem-based fisheries management to legislation and policy.

The global Indigenous rights agenda was asserted and consolidated in 2007 with the adoption of UNDRIP. UNDRIP is an international human rights instrument that affirms the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and wellbeing of Indigenous peoples. The Australian Government endorsed and signed UNDRIP in 2009, although this agreement is nonbinding.

The Australian Government, through its membership of the United Nations, has committed to achieving 17 SDGs, which collectively provide a framework for achieving a sustainable future for all. Ensuring a healthy and productive marine environment is central to many of the goals (see (Scharlemann et al. 2020). Many of the targets associated with the goals emphasise protection, restoration and strengthening of marine ecosystems (SDGs 11, 12, 14 and 15), sustainable consumption of resources (SDGs 7, 8, 9, 11, 12 and 14), reduction of land- and marine-based impacts (SDGs 1, 3, 6, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15), and equity in access to the benefits that marine ecosystems provide (SDGs 1, 2, 5 and 14).

The Australian Prime Minister, as a member of the 14-nation High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (Ocean Panel 2021), has committed to sustainably managing 100% of the ocean area under national jurisdiction, guided by a sustainable ocean plan, by 2025 (see case study: Australia’s National Marine Science Plan within the context of international initiatives). This sustainable plan is to ‘be in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, build on integrated ocean management and ecosystem knowledge, address pressures from all land and sea-based sources, and take account of the predicted impacts of climate change’ (Ocean Panel 2020). The Prime Minister is also a member of the 60-nation High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People – a global pact to protect 30% of the world’s land and sea by 2030, to halt the loss of species and ecosystems (HAC for Nature and People n.d.).

Achieving Australia’s commitments to these international initiatives will require addressing gaps in the coordination of many components of marine planning and co-management, including marine spatial planning frameworks, integrated coastal and marine management (including management of land-based pressures on marine environments), and climate change mitigation and adaptation across multiple scales, from local, state and territory to national and international. Australia can learn from other parts of the world that are progressing such integrated approaches in working to meet these important commitments (e.g. van Hoof et al. 2012).

Case Study Management of shared marine biodiversity values

Australian waters are part of national, regional and global ecosystems. Turtles that nest in Australia feed in many parts of the Indo-Pacific; baleen whales that breed in Australian waters also spend time in the open ocean and the waters of several other countries (Figure 27); and some fish and shark species move between Australian waters and adjacent waters to forage and breed. The status of many marine species of interest to Australia thus depends on actions taken by other countries. Within Australia, Indigenous, recreational and commercial users of marine resources value marine species for different reasons, and the national and state and territory governments often have different goals and processes to manage them.


Improving the status of marine resources in Australia requires improved understanding of values and governance arrangement across sectors, cultures and jurisdictions. Three examples of Australia’s actions in the management of shared values regionally and internationally are provided here.


Australia’s high level of regional and international engagement in marine resource science and management is growing and provides increased opportunities to support neighbouring countries to develop and implement sustainable practices for our mutual benefit. However, Australia would be better able to fulfil its international obligations to protect shared values if a framework to coordinate the management of species that move through the waters of more than one jurisdiction was introduced (Miller et al. 2019, Miller et al. 2020). Such a framework has the potential to improve communication between Indigenous, recreational and commercial users, as well as between national and state and territory levels. Advice from environmental and social scientists would help guide governance experts to a successful outcome.



Figure 27 (a) Connectivity of humpback whales within the South Pacific. (b) Key areas within Australian waters used by humpback whales. Humpback whales are just one of many species of turtles, birds and mammals that inhabit the waters of many jurisdictions

MoU = memorandum of understanding

Sources: (a) GRID-Arendal (2017). Credit: Riccardo Pravettoni UNEP/GRID-Arendal. (b) ERIN (2013)


Regional fisheries


Internationally, fisheries continue to suffer from overcapitalisation; overfishing; illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; and stock decline (FAO 2018). Australia is an active member of several regional fisheries management organisations operating across the Indo-Pacific (Figure 28) and supports the activities of international agencies by providing scientific input into cooperative management activities. Through support from the Australian Government and international funders, Australia assists with developing the capacity of neighbouring countries to improve the monitoring and management of shared fish stocks (Johns 2013, ACIAR 2019). Such engagement enables Australia to promote sustainable and responsible fishing practices, and to take a leadership role in the development of regional instruments to protect shared fish stocks, thereby strengthening regional ocean governance (Haward & Bergin 2016).



Figure 28 Areas of competence for regional fisheries management organisations

Regional biodiversity


Australia is a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Although member parties set out to meet a number of global targets for protecting and sustaining biodiversity (the Aichi Targets), over the 2 decades that the targets were operational, none were met (CBD Secretariat 2020). Recent global assessments indicate that ocean biodiversity is being lost at all levels as a result of direct and indirect human pressures (Rogers et al. 2020). Australia’s marine biodiversity is shared with many countries (e.g. Figure 27a) and therefore is influenced by the activities of these countries, operating in their own or international waters. Australia is active regionally through its governance activities, and through the engagement and leadership of Australian scientists in regional and global alliances. This engagement supports the developing countries in our region and reduces the threats to our shared marine biodiversity resources.


Migratory species


Australia is a party to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. Some 90 listed marine migratory species are protected as matters of national environmental significance under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). The EPBC Act serves as a bridging link between the Australian Government and each state and territory. However, the links between these jurisdictions are weak and tend to be most developed for large, charismatic threatened species, such as marine turtles and some whales (Miller et al. 2018b); they are relatively weak for other important species (e.g. bluefin tuna).